Violins of Hope brings Holocaust-era strings to Bay Area

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Inside San Francisco’s War Memorial Veterans Building, a group of carefully chosen Bay Area musicians gingerly draw their bows across the strings of 49 historic violins, a viola and a cello. Some of the instruments bear shiny Stars of David; others, nicks and scratches from the concentration camps of Auschwitz.

“This is bringing up a lot of emotions,” says Cookie Segelstein, a celebrated Berkeley violinist who will play one of the restored Holocaust-era strings during Violins of Hope, a series of concerts, exhibitions, and other events that begins Jan. 16 across eight Bay Area counties. “My parents were Holocaust survivors. (Years later) I grew up as the fiddler who played for them while they wept.”

You don’t need Eastern European roots to be moved by the power of these collective strings, which are making their West Coast debut. Organizers of the eight-week residency hope that the physical presence of these priceless instruments — they’ll be played, displayed and discussed in dozens of events from San Jose to Albany and San Francisco — will serve as symbols of endurance and foster discussions on human dignity and resilience.

“These instruments are symbols of peace and the power of music on the human spirit,” says Patricia Kristof Moy, executive director of Music at Kohl Mansion, the chamber music group that brought Violins of Hope to the Bay Area. “The violins are survivors themselves.”

Violinist Cookie Segelstein explores the Violins of Hope instruments, as she prepares for a two month-long series of concerts featuring the stringed instruments recovered from Nazi concentration camps. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group) 

Three years in the making, the Bay Area project — a collaboration among 42 organizations including the San Francisco Symphony — will feature symphonic, chamber and klezmer concerts and include music by Holocaust-era composers, who ultimately perished in the calamity, as well as the world premiere of a special commissioned work by Jake Heggie.

The series will also include library lectures, educational forums, film screenings, school presentations and a rare appearance by Violins of Hope co-founders and master luthiers Amnon and Avshalom Weinstein. Many of the events are free to the public. You just have to register.

In Amnon’s Tel Aviv studio, the father and son have meticulously restored 86 violins, violas and cellos played by European Jews in ghettos and Nazi death camps during World War II.

During the Holocaust, the role of music — and specifically the violin — was complicated. Auschwitz alone had eight orchestras. Commanders would order them to play for a variety of reasons, from executions to labor marches or purely for the amusement of the gestapo, Amnon explains. Ultimately, however, the music gave prisoners hope in unimaginable conditions.

“In this hell, the violin was a kind of spiritual help,” he says via Skype from Tel Aviv. “By hearing it, they were transported somewhere else and thought they could live another day. Another week.”

Amnon Weinstein, seen here with some of the violins played by European Jews before, during and after the Holocaust that he and his son Avshalom restored for an exhibit called ‘The Violins of Hope.” (Courtesy Violins of Hope) 

How did these delicate wood instruments survive when their owners perished? “The camps confiscated all of the belongings of the Jews, including thousands of violins, cellos and violas and kept them in storage,” says Amnon, who is in his 80s now. If they were summoned to play, the violins were brought out, then put back.

The first Holocaust violin that came into Amnon’s hands, its wood surface damaged by rain and snow, had ashes inside. One by one, Amnon and his son worked on each instrument, the painstaking restoration taking up to 18 months each. The Weinsteins’ 20-year journey and the stories of each violin are chronicled in musicologist James Grymes’ 2014 book, “Violins of Hope: Violins of the Holocaust — Instruments of Hope and Liberation in Mankind’s Darkest Hour.”

Since 2008, the collection has traveled to synagogues and symphony halls across Europe, Israel and parts of North America to educate, as well as memorialize the lives of those who perished. The Bay Area residency is particularly poignant: It coincides with the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and with International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27.

“Three years ago when we started planning this, we had no idea what would be going on in the world,” Kristof Moy says, referring to the recent acts of anti-semitism in New York and around the country. “There is violence everywhere, even in schools. These instruments can serve as symbols of hope and of the end of discrimination and violence. They speak with the voices of those who were persecuted. And they will not be forgotten.”

The musicians chosen to play the instruments feel the same way, says Kay Stern, concertmaster of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. She’s part of a string quartet that will perform a new piece, “Intonations: Songs from the Violins of Hope,” written specifically for the restored violins by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer. Grammy Award-winning mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke is a featured soloist in the performance.

“I’m thrilled to be a part of this,” Stern says. “It is an honor to bring these instruments to life and share the sounds that the people who owned them once played.”

For Amnon Weinstein, whose daughter lives in San Jose, this is perhaps the most meaningful part of the entire project.

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